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A place for holding

Yesterday afternoon, near the end of a long day that brought bouts of thunder and rain and strong sun, I was walking on a road through the woods and came to a clearing on the right that had several low trailers and buildings interconnected into a kind of compound. Most notable, though, were the coils of razor wire hanging from two fences, which formed a double barrier. I was planning to camp a half mile or so further down the road in the state forest thick all around the place, called the Maccormick Secure Center. It is run by the state of New York, used to house kids under the age of 16 who have been convicted in adult court of having committed violent crimes. I needed water.

A guy pulled into the parking lot in a big pickup and, after I told him why I was standing there, offered to give me some water from the kitchen sink in the sewage treatment plant, which was outside the razor wire at the back of the compound. I was soaking wet and smelled of the sweat that came while walking in full sun between the rain. He told me to walk around back and meet him at the sewage plant. He then climbed into his truck and drove there.

He parked, unlocked the gate to the plant, and then, in the kitchen, ran the cold water faucet. We talked about the long winter that had gripped the East, and I commented on the bleak existence the children must face within the walls on the other side of the razor wire. It did not look like a place for healing and of course is meant first as one of holding. Isolated and remote. Hidden and away. “It’s just a sad thing,” the man told me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we use particular places for on these long walks, and after I beat the rain to pitch my tent in the woods down the road, I read about the history of the forest. It grew atop sedimentary bedrock formed some 350 million years ago. Glaciers some 10,000 years ago carved the gentle but steep valleys. After the Revolutionary War, settlers moved into land inhabited by the Cayuga Nation.

The Cayuga had lived on the land lightly, making small camps and planting small plots of crops. The settlers cleared the trees and tried to farm, but it is not the best earth for that. In the 1920s and 30s, tough economic times all around, the state bought the land and conservation crews planted some 2 million seedlings by the 1950s.

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The site I chose for my tent was a clearing at the base of towering white pines. The forest floor was an evolving mix of twigs and needles and leaves and dirt. A toad hopped near my tent and spiders spun from the branches.

I fell asleep at 8 but woke up some time in the pitch black night. Lightning flashed quick and distant, and slams of thunder directly overhead grabbed the forest and gave it a fierce shake. I lay there, free to be anywhere, cowering on the soft earth.

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